Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Energy drinks and I^2

Much has been made (mostly by Malcolm Gladwell, which isn't necessarily a stunning endorsement) of the connection between the enlightenment and the broad use of coffee in Europe. Coffee houses were about the only social gathering place where people were taking stimulants rather than depressants, and so they were extremely productive intellectual centers. This post will not discuss the social aspect except in passing, but I will be spending part of it claiming that energy drinks are better than coffee so I figured I'd get that out of the way. (Full disclosure: I hate coffee with a passion, so I am biased.)

Today, the social aspect of coffee houses has atrophied. Coffee houses aren't really meetingplaces anymore. The same amount of socializing taking place in coffee houses is taking place on the internet, and most of the socializing in coffee houses takes place on the internet anyway. All we have that remains is the caffeine, and that is now taken care of by other methods.

What do energy drinks have that coffee does not? I'm not counting things like b vitamins or taurine, or horny goat weed, or any of the other various and sundry ingredients that are hyped. Most of them don't have well-documented results, and they all balk in nootropic function in comparison to something else that's common to all energy drinks: a wide variety of types, most of them disgusting.

Bear with me here. There has been a lot of talk (and several seemingly legitimate studies) about the correlation between intelligence and novelty-seeking behavior. Most of the people who know the difference between correlation and causation seem to assume that intelligence causes novelty-seeking, and perhaps it does. I would go for the opposite explanation, however: those behaviors which we consider intelligent are largely the product of a novelty-seeking disposition. Someone can be extremely innately intelligent, skilled, and clever, and they can still be so stuck on a single model of the world that they avoid any activity that we'd consider the hallmark of a great intellect. Someone can be innately fairly dull, but through a drive to learn about the world come off as intelligent. One of the things an area like energy drinks encourages is novelty seeking behavior.

The likelihood of the first energy drink someone tries being tasty is minimal, but the likelihood of it being highly caffeinated is great. The moment someone tastes it, two things happen: he realizes that it's disgusting, and he is rewarded for trying it. He may not want to try that particular variety again for a while, but there are plenty on the shelf, and when he tries the next one the same thing happens. By exploring the many varieties of energy drinks he is performing operant conditioning on himself to become a novelty-seeker.

From what I understand, this was something like the state of coffee houses in London in the nineteenth century -- most of the coffee was terrible but still caffeinated, and you had to do a lot of exploring of the city to find a coffee house that served edible coffee. This may partially account for the success of Babbage and Lovelace, among others.

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